The Essays of Francis Bacon/XXII Of Cunning

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XXII. Of Cunning.

We take Cunning for a sinister or crooked wisdom. And certainly there is a great difference between a cunning man and a wise man; not only in point of honesty, but in point of ability. There be that can pack the cards, and yet cannot play well; so there are some that are good in canvasses and factions, that are otherwise weak men. Again, it is one thing to understand persons, and another thing to understand matters; for many are perfect in men's humours, that are not greatly capable of the real part of business; which is the constitution of one that hath studied men more than books. Such men are fitter for practice than for counsel; and they are good but in their own alley:[1] turn them to new men, and they have lost their aim; so as the old rule to know a fool from a wise man, Mitte ambos nudos ad ignotos, et videbis,[2] doth scarce hold for them. And because these cunning men are like haberdashers[3] of small wares, it is not amiss to set forth their shop.

It is a point of cunning, to wait[4] upon him with whom you speak, with your eye; as the Jesuits give it in precept: for there be many wise men that have secret hearts and transparent countenances. Yet this would[5] be done with a demure abasing of your eye sometimes, as the Jesuits also do use.

Another is, that when you have anything to obtain of present despatch, you entertain and amuse the party with whom you deal with some other discourse; that he be not too much awake to make objections. I knew a counsellor and secretary, that never came to Queen Elizabeth of England with bills to sign, but he would always first put her into some discourse of estate, that she mought the less mind the bills.

The like surprise may be made by moving[6] things when the party is in haste, and cannot stay to consider advisedly of that is moved.

If a man would cross a business that he doubts some other would handsomely and effectually move, let him pretend to wish it well, and move it himself in such sort as may foil it.

The breaking off in the midst of that[7] one was about to say, as if he took himself up, breeds a greater appetite in him with whom you confer to know more.

And because it works better when anything seemeth to be gotten from you by question, than if you offer it of yourself, you may lay a bait for a question, by showing another visage and countenance than you are wont; to the end to give occasion for the party to ask what the matter[8] is of the change? As Nehemias did; And I had not before that time been sad before the king.[9]

In things that are tender and unpleasing, it is good to break the ice by some whose words are of less weight, and to reserve the more weighty voice to come in as by chance, so that he may be asked the question upon the other's speech; as Narcissus did, in relating to Claudius the marriage of Messalina and Silius.[10]

In things that a man would not be seen in himself, it is a point of cunning to borrow the name of the world; as to say, The world says, or There is a speech abroad.

I knew one that, when he wrote a letter, he would put that which was most material in the postscript, as if it had been a bye-matter.

I knew another that, when he came to have speech, he would pass over that that he intended most; and go forth, and come back again, and speak of it as of a thing that he had almost forgot.

Some procure themselves to be surprised at such times as it is like the party that they work upon will suddenly come upon them; and to be found with a letter in their hand, or doing somewhat which they are not accustomed; to the end they may be apposed[11] of those things which of themselves they are desirous to utter.

It is a point of cunning, to let fall those words in a man's own name, which he would have another man learn and use, and thereupon take advantage. I knew two that were competitors for the secretary's place in Queen Elizabeth's time, and yet kept good quarter[12] between themselves; and would confer one with another upon the business; and the one of them said, That to be a secretary in the declination[13] of a monarchy was a ticklish thing, and that he did not affect it: the other straight caught up those words, and discoursed with divers of his friends, that he had no reason to desire to be secretary in the declination of a monarchy. The first man took hold of it, and found means it was told the Queen; who hearing of a declination of a monarchy, took it so ill, as[14] she would never after hear of the other's suit.[15]

There is a cunning, which we in England call The turning of the cat in the pan;[16] which is, when that which a man says to another, he lays it as if another had said it to him. And to say truth, it is not easy, when such a matter passed between two, to make it appear from which of them it first moved and began.

It is away that some men have, to glance and dart at others by justifying themselves by negatives; as to say, This I do not: as Tigellinus did toward Burrhus, Se non diversas spes, sed incolumitatem imperatoris simplidter spectare.[17]

Some have in readiness so many tales and stories, as there is nothing they would insinuate, but they can wrap it into a tale; which serveth both to keep themselves more in[18] guard, and to make others carry it with more pleasure.

It is a good point of cunning, for a man to shape the answer he would have in his own words and propositions; for it makes the other party stick the less.

It is strange how long some men will lie in wait to speak somewhat they desire to say; and how far about they will fetch;[19] and how many other matters they will beat over, to come near it. It is a thing of great patience, but yet of much use.

A sudden, bold and unexpected question doth many times surprise a man, and lay him open. Like to him that, having changed his name and walking in Paul's, another suddenly came behind him and called him by his true name, whereat straightways he looked back.

But these small wares and petty points of cunning are infinite; and it were a good deed to make a list of them; for that nothing doth more hurt in a state than that cunning men pass for wise.

But certainly some there are that know the resorts[20] and falls[21] of business, that cannot sink into the main of it; like a house that hath convenient stairs and entries, but never a fair room. Therefore you shall see them find out pretty[22] looses[23] in the conclusion,[24] but are no ways able to examine or debate matters. And yet commonly they take advantage of their inability, and would be thought wits of direction. Some build rather upon the abusing of others, and (as we now say) putting tricks upon them, than upon soundness of their own proceedings. But Salomon saith, Prudens advertit ad gressus suos: stultus divertit ad dolos.[25]

  1. Alley. A long narrow passage for playing at bowls; a metaphor from the game of bowls.
  2. Send both naked to those who do not know, and you will see. Diogenes Laertius, II. 73, attributes this saying to Aristippus. "One of the philosophers was asked; What a wise man differed from a fool? He answered; Send them both naked to those that know them not, and you shall perceive." Bacon. Apophthegmes New and Old. 255 (189).
  3. Haberdasher, A. dealer in small wares pertaining to dress, such as tape, thread, ribbon, etc.
  4. To wait upon or on. To look watchfully to. "Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thy heart: wait, I say, on the Lord." Psalms xxvi. 14.
  5. Would. Should.
  6. Move. To propose or bring forward for consideration or acceptance.
  7. That. What.
  8. Matter. Cause.

    "I have almost matter enough in me for such an embassage."

    Shakspere. Much Ado About Nothing. i. 1.

  9. Nehemiah ii. 1.
  10. Tacitus. Annalium Liber XI. 29.
  11. Appose. To examine; to question.
  12. Quarter. Relations with, or conduct towards, another, especially in the phrase to keep good (or fair) quarter with (between).

    "So he would keep fair quarter with his bed."

    Shakspere. The Comedy of Errors. ii. 1.

  13. Declination. A gradual falling off from a condition of prosperity or vigor; decline.
  14. As. That.
  15. In 1597, Sir Robert Cecil was made secretary of state over Sir Thomas Bodley, who was the candidate of the Earl of Essex. Mr. Spedding first suggested that Bacon is here relating a cunning trick played by his cousin, the younger Cecil.
  16. To turn the cat in the pan. To reverse the order of things so dexterously as to make them appear the very opposite of what they really are. The origin of the phrase is obscure.
  17. That he had not expectations from different quarters, but looked simply to the safety of the emperor. Tacitus. Annalium Liber XIV. 57.
  18. In. On. "But look you pray, all you that kiss my Lady Peace at home, that our armies join not in a hot day." Shakspere. II. King Henry IV. i. 2.
  19. To fetch about. To take a roundabout course or method.

    "And, like a shifted wind unto a sail,
    It makes the course of thoughts to fetch about."

    Shakspere. King John. iv. 2.

  20. Resort. Spring; active power or movement. A Gallicism.
  21. Fall. What befalls or happens; chance.

    "Black be your fa'!"

    Burns. Address to the Deil. xvi.

  22. Pretty. Suitable; fit; convenient.

    "Armado. Pretty and apt."
    "Moth. How mean you, sir? I pretty and my saying apt, or I
    apt, and my saying pretty?"
    Shakspere. Love's Labour's Lost. i. 2.

  23. Loose. Issue, way of escape. In archery, a loose is the discharge of the arrow or dart from the bow.

    "The extreme dart of time extremely forms
    All causes to the purpose of his speed;
    And often, at his very loose, decides
    That which long process could not arbitrate."

    Shakspere. Love's Labour's Lost. v. ii.

  24. Conclusion. Final determination, decision, resolution.
  25. The prudent man looks to his steps: the fool turns aside to deceits. Proverbs xiv. 8. This is a translation of Bacon's Latin. The Authorized Version is: "The wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way: but the folly of fools is deceit." As Bacon remembered this saying of Solomon's, it seems to be made up from two verses of the Vulgate, loosely quoted:—Sapientia callidi est intelligere viam suam; et imprudentia stultorum errans. Proverbs xiv. 8, and astutus considerat gressus suos. Proverbs xiv. 15.